The Wireless Access Protocol Forum this month blasted a December report claiming that WAP, and mobile commerce services based on it, have a dim future. The Forum, a nonprofit group of 600 vendors promoting WAP, argued that the report was flawed by testing WAP with 20 new users, instead of 20 of the eight million existing WAP subscribers worldwide.

But a closer look at the details suggests the Forum and the report’s authors, Web usability experts Nielsen Norman Consulting, may have complementary, not opposing views. These issues are directly relevant to corporate MIS managers who may consider creating WAP services for employees, business partners or customers.

WAP is a way for handheld devices to access Web information that’s formatted using the Wireless Markup Language. WAP browsers can run on cell phones, PDAs and similar devices. And it’s the basis for some of the most shameless hyperbole by vendors and carriers about how transactions made possible by handheld devices will transform life as we know it on this planet.

The Nielsen Norman report was based on a pretty straightforward test. The consultants gave 20 users in Great Britain a WAP-enabled cell phone (half got an Ericsson phone, and half got a Nokia phone). The users were asked to use it for a week, and keep a record of their impressions in a daily diary.

The consultants also ran a set of usability tests at the start and end of this field test. In the tests, users were timed doing a set of simple WAP tasks, such as reading world news headlines, checking local weather forecasts, and so on.

The impressions were notably unfavorable.

Seventy per cent of the users said they would not use WAP in the coming year. After a week of use, time needed to do various tasks improved but was still painfully slow, according to users. Reading a TV program listing took 2.6 minutes at the start of the week, and 1.6 minutes at the end.

Most of a group of unnamed “Internet experts,” asked how long they thought such tasks should take (before being allowed to see the test results), estimated a time of less than 30 seconds, according to Jakob Nielsen, one of the consulting firm’s principals.

Technically, WAP does, in fact, work as a markup language and a protocol. The real problem, as Nielsen’s own study makes clear, is the way WAP services are designed. In a word, badly.

Nielsen’s chief complaints in fact are poorly designed WAP Web sites, unclear labels and special terms, and a way of structuring WAP-based information that bears little resemblance to what users want to do.

Some of the examples he cited were:

Excite used four screens to present two screens worth of information; use of “cute vocabulary,” confusing users who wasted time deciphering meanings; and organizing TV listings by network, instead of by day and time.

It’s these kinds of issues that plagued the novice users in Nielsen’s study, and not technical issues of actually accessing the sites or their information.

Instead of trying to debunk all this, the WAP Forum members should welcome it. These kinds of usability studies are almost a blueprint for improving WAP services.

The Nielson Norman report isn’t the first public criticism of WAP. There’s been a drumbeat of complaints in 2000 about WAP services that are hard to understand and hard to use. That means they’re also costly, as users pay for unnecessary airtime.

The WAP Forum says BT Cellnet has over 500,000 WAP subscribers, triple the number the carrier had five months ago. But the real questions are how many of those users from five months ago are still using WAP services and how frequently?

For corporate users, WAP could be an almost perfect fit: it can give users instant access to specific, high-value corporate information, such as the status of a customer’s order, or a change in a manufacturing deadline. But corporate WAP services will have to be better designed than the current consumer WAP services.